The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(29) by Lorraine Heath
“So he did die, you left him to die.”
Catherine hesitated. “Winnie—”
“For God’s sake tell her the truth,” William snapped, “because if you don’t I will.”
Her brow deeply furrowed, Winnie jerked her gaze over to him, and not averting his was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
“Claybourne carried him out,” Catherine said on a rush, snagging Winnie’s attention once more.
“So he didn’t die?”
Sadly Catherine shook her head.
Winnie stumbled back a couple of steps. “But I saw the body.”
“You saw a body, dressed in Avendale’s clothes, wearing his rings. We arranged for Avendale to be transported to New Zealand as a criminal, under another name. We can only deduce that he either managed to escape or convinced someone to set him free.”
“You can only deduce? So you believe he’s here, wreaking havoc with my sanity, and you didn’t think I needed to know?”
Catherine nodded reluctantly. “We believed we could handle it without you being the wiser for it. You thought you were a widow—”
Winnie staggered back as though she’d taken a blow. Horrified, she looked at William and he knew she was thinking of last night, of her marriage vows, of how she’d unwittingly broken them. “I’m not a widow. My son is not the duke.”
“No one need know that,” Catherine said. “We will find him. We will set matters to right.”
“I think you all have done quite enough.” She slowly turned to face William squarely. “You robbed graves in your youth, so I assume you provided the body. Where did you get it?”
“A pauper is buried in my husband’s family’s crypt?”
While it brought him no pride, he nodded.
“All along you knew he was alive. Last night—” Tears welled in her eyes. “You knew I wasn’t a widow. You knew I wasn’t . . . free.”
He had no response whatsoever to that accusation. He had known, damn him, and he’d put his needs to have her above all else.
She advanced on him. “I thought I was going mad. Things disappearing, reappearing. Sounds in the night. His scent wafting through the house, which I now realize must have been wafting in his wake. He was in my son’s room. He was in my room. You knew all this and yet you let me doubt my sanity.”
“You can’t blame him,” Catherine said. “When we decided to do this, we took a vow of secrecy.”
Winnie’s gaze never left his. “A vow more important than me.” Then she laughed, a sound that carried no joy. “Your attentions of late, were they all part of this elaborate scheme to hide what you’d done, to ensure I didn’t learn the truth?”
Easier to lie than to tell her the truth because at this point she wouldn’t believe him anyway. “I wanted to be certain I was there to protect you should he show himself.”
“You left me to suffer. You didn’t trust me not to betray you.”
“Winnie, you wept when I told you he was dead,” Catherine said.
“Of course I wept. With profound relief because no one would ever hurt me again.” She turned back to William. “Although I was mistaken there. How was I to know the pain of broken bones pales in comparison to that of a broken heart?”
“Winnie, it was never my intention to hurt you.”
She gave a caustic laugh. “Do you know that Avendale said those precise words after every time he hit me?”
Nothing else she could have said would have cut him as deeply.
Glancing quickly at the others, she said, “Please, I beg you all, don’t help me any further. I shall see to this matter myself.”
With her chin held high, she marched from the room, marched out of his life. He let her go because he knew he had killed whatever love she might have held for him.
He was vaguely aware of Catherine touching his arm. “What she said, it wasn’t fair.”
“It was completely fair.”
Avendale was alive!
Winnie let that thought hover around her as she sat in his hideous overbearing library. He was alive. She wasn’t free. She wasn’t free to love William. She wasn’t free to even kiss him!
Why hadn’t Avendale walked into the residence and announced his return?
Because he wanted to toy with her, the bastard. He no doubt blamed her for what he had suffered. As much as she wished Catherine hadn’t taken such drastic measures to keep Winnie safe, she also had to admit that she was touched by her friend’s devotion. Angry to be sure, disappointed that they had thought they couldn’t trust her, but also touched.
Three years ago, she’d been too shy to stand up for herself, had lacked confidence in her abilities. Had even thought on occasion that perhaps she deserved the rough treatment. But now she understood that Avendale had no right to pommel his fists into her, no right to treat her badly. That he thought he could return and begin to torment her anew was not to be tolerated.
She considered packing her things and taking Whit someplace where they would both be safe, but she didn’t like the way it made her feel to avoid the confrontation that she was certain would be happening very soon. So she had his governess take him to a cousin’s for a few days. She gave the servants the night off. With the doors to the library open onto the terrace, she watched as evening fell, all the while feeling as though she were being watched.
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